The year had started so well.
I had booked my first audition of the year, shot the commercial and a bunch of exciting selftapes and auditions had come in.
Then silence on the job boards.
The lockdown in Germany came earlier and my mum called me worried I wouldn’t be able to come home.
I had planned to visit her for a week anyway so I changed my flights (for free which was worrying of itself) added an additional piece of luggage to take the most important things with me and flew to Germany, hoping that things would calm down and that it was just a fluke.
Only a week later the UK went into lockdown too and I started to realise that I would be stuck, that I needed to rethink all my plans for the year and that jobs to build up my acting portfolio would be mostly out of reach.
But then something fabulous happened.
Various theatre companies began to organise readings via zoom and in exploring the medium, quickly began to create a whole new art form.
While we still could not be on stage or in the rehearsal room together, at least we could feel a little less alone and keep telling stories.
We were back to learning, back to exploring and back to acting.
It is humbling to think of all the fantastic projects and all the talented people I met and was honoured to work with through this medium. Most of them also artists I might never have met, never mind been on stage with if this virus had not crashed into our industry like a tsunami.
Of course none of it was paid and of course the arts need more recognition and specifically financially all over the world. While surviving is important, without artists no one would have made it through this year, no matter how much politicians and various other members of society claim that we are not “essential workers”.
So many of us are still struggling to even put food on the table and keep a roof over our head. Meanwhile we are being asked to re-train in a more viable job.
However, this piece is not about making a political statement about the importance of a healthy arts industry in a healthy democracy.
No, this is about the resilience artists show and how art finds a way.
When I first saw a zoom performance, I was intrigued by how much enthusiasm everyone brought to the table.
Childhood toys, house plants or kitchen utensils became swords, forests, torches and more. It was acting reduced to it’s most basic and creative. It was about telling stories in their simplest form.
Frankly it was wonderful.
Others (more academically knowledgeable than myself) will write about the impact on theatre this might have going forward, on the creation of a new art form even.
I’m only interested in it as an actor and as an audience member.
Did I believe the performances? Yes.
Did I find them truthful? Definitely.
Were some of them the best productions I have seen? Believe me when I say, yes, they were.
As an actor I was also delighted to be suddenly cast in roles I never might have been considered for in another world. The same happened to many actors I know and what a wonderful thing to see everyone show new facets and discover things about themselves while performing.
As an audience member I was moved to tears, laughed and cackled at the screen, hated one character, loved another and more often than not I discovered something about the play as a whole or a particular character that I never saw before.
Well, because zoom is an utterly democratic platform. I can completely choose which character I focus on during any scene all by myself. There is no lighting to guide me, no blocking that is going to impede my view.
The result of that is of course that there are scene-stealing performances and they are an utter delight and yet don’t detract from following the story because of course everyone has an equal amount of space on screen.
That little square of real space the actor has to work with is both a constraint and provides opportunities for magic. A cardboard cutout will become a wall, hiding behind a tiny pot-plant is feasible. The suspension of disbelief allows for battle scenes and characters on horseback in ways that on stage would swallow up large amounts of the budget.
And as an actor?
Well, for one it is good for your discipline because you will pretty much constantly be watching your own performance. Many dislike this and it makes them self-conscious but it is a good habit to get into, to watch your own performance as objectively as you can. How else are we supposed to learn and work on ourselves?
But the other brilliant thing about this medium is that we are truly storytellers. It’s as simple as that. We cannot worry about believing in our performance because if we don’t believe this wooden spoon with cut-out leaves is a tree we are hiding behind, the audience won’t either.
Of course, you may say, but don’t we have to do that in the theatre too? And yes, we do, but the simple tools at our disposal in the zoom world makes it even more important for us to create a whole world we inhabit so that the audience can join in.
They may not be in the room with us, but they will believe they are in the forest of Arden with us as long as we take them by the hand and see it for them.
The other things that will make them believe is one simple thing. It is when us actors are having fun. Again this comes down to the suspension of disbelief. If the actor attacks a lamp with relish because he is having fun with his character, the audience will go with this idea unquestioningly.
As an actor trained in the Meisner technique and dedicated to truthfulness, I would say zoom performances force us actors to get down to the bottom of utter truthfulness. We really are doing truthfully under imaginary circumstances no matter what we have at our disposal. This spoon is now a sword and there is no questioning it. It is all in service to telling the story.
There is so much I have learnt from this experience but the thing I want to take forward with me the most is this sense of playful truthfulness.
‘All the world’s a stage’ and despite everything that has been set against us as artists this year, we’re surviving, we’re learning, experiencing and most of all, we still manage to thrive creatively.
I’ve made friends all over the world, discovered things about myself, learnt from utter powerhouses and now?
Well, we need to hang in there a little longer. As I am writing this, the vaccine has been announced to arrive in the UK next week, Germany is aiming for the 15th December so there is hope.
This year has not been a lost year. This year has been about learning. It has been about exploring new ways around terrible odds. It has been about more than surviving.
For me it’s important to hold onto the following:
We managed to keep living creatively. We kept learning and exploring and we came together as a community in ways that we did not imagine before.
Things had shifted, there is no doubt about that, but even with so many doors closing on us, these international projects, grassroots as they were will have kept so many of us not only sane but with our eyes on the path.
And who would have thought grassroot theatre could include actors from all over the world?
I guess what I am trying to say is: It hasn’t been easy but what a beautiful world of talented people have we all discovered? Somehow this artists’ life feels less lonely thanks to the initiatives and projects this year.
Let’s hold on to that; the connections we made and the stories we shared as we hopefully move into a year where we can work in person again and have the audience in the same space with us, even if there is a long way to go yet.